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Trans-Pacific Partnership: “We Will Not Obey”; Building a Global Resistance Movement

(Photo: Caelie_Frampton / Flickr)

We are in a time of transformational change. The opportunity is here to reverse the destruction wrought by rigged corporate trade agreements and to demand trade that is fair and promotes sustainable practices. There is no reason trade cannot improve the lives of workers and people around the world, as well as protect the planet from the rapacious destruction of corporate greed. We need to insist that people and the planet come before profits.

It is up to us to make this transformation a reality. To do so we must build a broad-based, movement of movements that sends a clear message to Washington, DC: “If you pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we will not obey.”

The Obama administration has made it a priority to have the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) completed by the end of the year. The TPP is the largest trade agreement negotiated since the World Trade Organization (WTO). It covers 12 countries so far and includes provisions that reach beyond issues of trade. The full contents of the TPP are unknown because it has been negotiated with unprecedented secrecy; however, it is clear from what has been revealed that the TPP gives transnational corporations the power to alter our laws down to the local level to enhance and protect their profits.

To pass the TPP, Obama is seeking Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority from Congress, which would give the president the ability to negotiate and sign the agreement before it is presented to Congress for a limited debate and an up-or-down vote without amendments. Fast Track, which has been used to pass other undesirable trade deals like the WTO and NAFTA, would prohibit a transparent and democratic process. Without Fast Track, it would be more difficult to pass the TPP.

At present, with the help of grass-roots pressure, momentum is growing in Congress to stop Fast Track. Many elected Republicans and Democrats are signing on to letters stating that they refuse to give up their constitutional responsibility to regulate trade between nations. However, as corporate lobbyists descend on Congress, that momentum could change.

To ensure that Fast Track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership do not become law, we need to continue to build grass-roots pressure. In addition to contacting Congress, activists are organizing to pass local laws saying their community will not obey the TPP because it is being passed in secrecy, without their consent and taking away their ability to legislate for the benefit of their community. And activists are strengthening their ties with the global community by coordinating efforts to stop the TPP and other toxic agreements such as the WTO and the new Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, known as TAFTA, which started being negotiated in July.

Time to Build a Democratic Movement of Resistance

Alliance for Democracy member Ruth Caplan, who has been active in movements that stopped previous trade agreements and facilitated the creation of an alternative “General Agreement for the New Economy,” recently told us, “It is time to build a democratic movement of resistance. This starts from the grass roots, in the communities where we live.” She urges opponents of the TPP to work with their local governments – city, town and county – to pass TPP-Free Zone laws.

As Caplan emphasizes, “This is not, ‘Please, Congress, do the right thing,’ but language of resistance. We need to say, ‘If you create this secretly negotiated corporate trade agreement and it is a rubber-stamped by Congress, we will not obey.’ “

The Alliance for Democracy web site has information to help activists work with local elected officials to do this. In addition to providing model municipal laws that can be edited to fit the needs of the community, they provide the best arguments for making the case to local officials.

Dane County and the city of Madison, Wisconsin, recently passed resolutions opposing the TPP; and Berkeley, California, is in the process of considering one. David Newby of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition, who was a key player in passing the Wisconsin resolutions, said:

“What was most powerful with local officials was the realization that these trade agreements change federal law to conform to the agreement. That would mean the elimination of Buy America or Buy Local in terms of government procurement. … TPP limits the ability to pass ordinances which benefit the people of Dane County or the City of Madison.”

Caplan points out that more specifically the TPP would undermine local laws such as those that protect food safety, worker rights and the environment. In addition to requiring that laws conform to provisions within the TPP, corporations would be allowed to sue governments in the trade tribunal if laws interfere with their profits. Governments could not represent their interests before the tribunal or appeal adverse decisions. This would be a tremendous loss of sovereignty.

The TPP-Free Zone would say to Obama and Congress that communities will not allow secretly negotiated trade deals to undermine the ability of local governments to legislate. Caplan explains that just as some communities are challenging the idea that corporations have the constitutional rights of humans, this is an approach of “taking on settled law. It is taking on what these corporations think they have already won.”

The campaign to pass TPP-Free Zone laws serves other purposes as well. It is an opportunity to reach out to local advocacy groups and educate them about the TPP. And it provides a way to break through the media blackout of the TPP by approaching local media.

A similar campaign that included resolutions in the US, Canada, Australia, Asia and Europe was a key ingredient in stopping the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in the mid-1990s. When the draft MAI was released in 1997, broad opposition that included labor, environmental, human rights and other civil society groups developed quickly. And by October 1998, the MAI was dead. The overall approach was called the “Dracula Strategy,” i.e. that exposing the agreement to the light of day would kill it. Many of the same arguments being made against the TPP were also made against the MAI.

Caplan describes the defeat of the MAI as the first global movement against corporate trade deals and with success “the movement felt its power. It taught that active citizens working together can overcome transnational corporate power and defeat them.” It helped to build the momentum to stall the WTO in the Seattle protests of 1999. Arthur Stamoulis of Citizens Trade Campaign, who has been working against corporate trade agreements since the 1999 Seattle protests, reminds us that past trade agreements have been stopped by a “movement of movements.” And that is what is happening now with the TPP because it affects so many different issues: food sovereignty, health care, Internet freedom, labor, the environment, human rights and more.

The Importance of Unity

For the movement of movements to be successful in stopping rigged corporate trade agreements, the groups that are working together must be united in their opposition. If some members of the movement seek compromise to protect only their own interests, the movement of movements is weakened.

It would be disastrous if some group decided to support the TPP if it contains language to protect its constituency. For example, if labor seeks language that allows workers to organize unions or that protects workers in other ways, this approach would be short-sighted because such language has been included in past agreements and is not enforceable. And there may be other aspects of the agreement that could cause harm. For instance, even with the right to organize, if the agreement further deregulates banks, as the TPP does, this could lead to another economic crisis, which would cause greater unemployment and financial hardship for workers.

Similarly, the international trade tribunal makes language to protect the environment, workers or consumers moot. These tribunals are rigged for the corporations. Past cases in similar tribunals have cost tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars. Imagine what would happen if an oil and gas corporation sues a community that bans fracking or pipelines for millions of dollars. Rather than risk this expense, governments may feel forced to repeal their laws.

The trade tribunal will rely on corporate lawyers on temporary leave from their jobs to serve as judges, i.e. the corporate lawyer will serve on the tribunal, make a ruling and return to the corporation. This creates a kangaroo court system that favors transnational corporations. Representatives from the government and civil society will not have any standing to participate in this litigation. And there is no mechanism for appeal. Under a system like this, language in the TPP that sounds good will in fact be rhetoric that is unenforceable.

And we can expect that language within the TPP already has been designed to maximize corporate interests. Anyone who has negotiated a contract or detailed legislation knows that a few words can change the entire meaning of a law or contract. For the past three and a half years, the TPP has been negotiated with the assistance of more than 600 representatives of transnational corporations or their trade associations. They have had direct access to the text so they could offer specific changes to it.

On the other hand, civil society groups have been largely excluded from the process, being permitted to speak at meetings, but not to amend the text. Their involvement has been controlled to give the illusion of participation so that the office of the US trade representative can say that the process was inclusive while, in fact, civil society has had no impact on the agreement.

The TPP creates a real dilemma for some groups because it is being pushed by a Democratic administration and large labor and environmental groups and other advocacy groups closely allied with the Democratic Party. In the past, some of these groups have provided cover to pass laws that favor corporate interests in return for some sort of concession. This allows terrible laws to pass, and only later do these groups find out that the bone they have been thrown has no meat on it.

This happened with the recent Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Language was added to protect workers, but conditions for workers actually have deteriorated. Hundreds of thousands of workers and small farmers are protesting because their livelihoods are being destroyed by so-called free trade.

There is no need to compromise. It is imperative that civil society groups stand in solidarity to protect all of the people. We can stop these trade agreements. At least 14 other corporate trade agreements have not been completed because of widespread public opposition. And once the TPP is stopped, we must continue to work together for fair and sustainable trade. One model for that is the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act, which also includes renegotiation of the WTO and NAFTA.

Global Day of Action against Toxic Trade

An opportunity is coming up soon to stand in solidarity with people all over the world and simultaneously build momentum to prevent Fast Track from being passed in Congress this year.

On December 3, 2013, the next round of WTO meetings will take place in Bali, Indonesia. That will be followed by a ministerial round of TPP negotiations in Singapore, on December 7. The final week in Congress prior to the winter recess starts December 9.

A coalition of more than 90 organizations and social movements in Asia has called for a global day of action against the WTO and other toxic trade agreements on December 3. This coalition writes with a real sense of urgency because its members are experiencing the effects of displacement, loss of livelihoods and loss of lives caused by the current economic system that exploits people and the planet, depletes resources and causes climate change.

Organizations in the United States are joining that call to action and are planning to hold rallies in public places at noon December 3. The emphasis in the United States will be around jobs because the holiday times are difficult for those who are unemployed and underemployed. Our message is that we must stand in solidarity to end the race to the bottom in jobs and wages. As long as there are places where people are allowed to be exploited and transnational corporations are free to move their facilities to places with the cheapest labor and fewest regulations, we are all vulnerable to declining wages and human rights abuses.

The US call to action states, “We will not obey secret deals made by transnational corporations that defy public interests and desires and destroy hard-won protections of people, workers and the environment. We demand the rights of all people to live with dignity, to meet their basic needs and to build a 21st century sustainable green economy.”

Following the day of action, grass-roots activists all across the nation will continue to monitor Congress closely and do what is necessary to keep Congress from passing Fast Track and signing the TPP into law. A Rapid Response Toolkit is being prepared for use in the case that a Fast Track bill passes in committee in Congress and is sent to the floor for a vote. Visit for more information.

Transitioning from Corporate Trade to Trade for the People and Planet

The evidence is clear that trade agreements benefit only the wealthiest and harm the rest of us. Trade agreements between the US and other countries have increased the US trade deficit and destroyed hundreds of thousands of US jobs.

A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research predicts that the TPP will cause only a 0.1 percent annual increase in gross domestic product. It will shift large amounts of wealth to the richest 5 percent of the population while reducing income for the bottom 90 percent.

Instead of continuing on this destructive path, Stamoulis says, “We can change the priorities of trade. Trade policy can be a tool for improving human rights, working conditions and environmental sustainability.”

If we started from the position of putting protection of the planet and improving the lives of workers and other people first, the trade negotiations would be very different. Environmental groups, labor unions and other civil society representatives would be brought into the process. Businesses of all sizes would also be included. And the agreements would include enforceable standards.

Negotiations would be transparent and democratic. There would be no more need for secrecy and forcing agreements through Congress using the anti-democratic Fast Track. In fact, Fast Track is a sign of weakness, a sign of a failed process. If a law cannot stand the light of day, it should not become law.

The December 3 global call to action includes a call to build an alternative economic system. It states, “Social movements, indigenous peoples, women, youth, workers, migrants, environmental and trade justice activists and organizations all have proposals of alternatives that are based on justice. Many have in fact been implementing their alternatives such as agroecology, food sovereignty and several other examples, all showing that it is possible to have a different kind of way of developing and co-existing with Nature. We can come together and reimagine an international trading system that promotes Economic Justice and is based on complementarity, cooperation and solidarity.”

A similar movement to build an alternative economy that benefits everyone is growing in the US as well. Communities are creating thriving and sustainable local economies that are based on values such as justice, cooperation, sharing and solidarity. (For more on the new economy see this article and the articles listed at the end of it.)

The Moment Is Now

As Nancy Price of the Alliance for Democracy points out, “The TPP and TAFTA are about global corporate rule and not about single issues. If one group caves just to have their issues addressed, in ways that turn out to be more rhetoric than reality, then we all lose. We don’t need a constitution for corporate global rule; we need one where the people rule. Rather than creating a 21st century where transnational corporations are more powerful than governments, we have the opportunity to make the 21st century one that respects democracy, empowers people and protects the planet. But, it begins by stopping the TPP and TAFTA. We can do that if there is solidarity among all who care about these issues.”

Large corporate trade agreements mostly have been stalled since 1999, when a critical mass of people became aware that these agreements undermine the public interest, democracy and sovereignty of nations. If we defeat Fast Track, resulting in the failure of the TPP and TAFTA, we will have demonstrated to the two corporate parties and corporate interests that a dramatically different approach to trade is needed. The experiment with toxic trade will have failed, and people will be ready to try a new approach that is consistent with democracy and with the need to protect the planet and people.

We are on the verge of winning these battles. It is essential for advocates to increase their activism, for members of the movement of movements to stand together in solidarity and then for us to build on these victories against transnational corporate power to create a new economic system for the people and the planet.

Further reading:

Trans-Pacific Partnership Will Undermine Democracy, Empower Transnational Corporations

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: We Won’t Be Fooled by Rigged Corporate Trade Agreements

To hear the Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers interview “The Growing Effort to Stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership” with guests David Newby of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition, Ruth Caplan of the Alliance for Democracy and Arthur Stamoulis of Citizens Trade Campaign click here.

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